Advent – Getting Ready By Seeing Things As They Are
“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
Scrooge hung his head to hear his wn words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 3, literature.org
I have often bragged about my special edition of A Christmas Carol. It was the sesquicentennial edition. It included a facsimile of the original manuscript, in the rare collections at New York Public Library, along with sketches for the original illustrations before the one’s used were chosen. The introduction includes the history of the writing of this book that seems as universal as the original Christmas story. In the summer of 1843, one of Dickens’ benefactors took him to one of the larger parish poor houses, so that he could see the conditions in which children sent to live in these homes, were subjected to. The hope was that Dickens, who knew of poverty, and was passionate about justice for those suffering, would advertise the deplorable conditions of the newly established institutions and, by raising awareness, convince the public to demand improvements.
Originally planning to write a long tract, at the end of the day, the tract wouldn’t come. And wouldn’t come. Instead, Dickens set himself to writing a novella. In the days before marketing and agents and the long lead times contemporary books need to move from manuscript to print, Dickens’s “little ghost of a tale” was completed in the fall and printed in time for Christmas, 1843. The public’s reaction was extremely positive, not only in Britain, but in the United States (where Dickens had an enormous following, thanks in large part to the serialization of his novels in popular literary magazines), where one factory owner gave his employees an extra day off after reading A Christmas Carol.
As the author of that introduction says, it’s important to remember that this story, so much a part of our Christmas celebrations, has a history – a time before it existed; a beginning; an initial stage of acceptance; its gradual weaving in to Anglo-American Christmas traditions – so that we would remember that it, just as we, is a creature of history. It was not only the story that has a history, but it emerged at a particular time in history, when Britain, rising as the world’s only real superpower, was beginning to celebrate that new-found power, and was the original “Christian nation” (with more justification that the United States; the Queen, after all, is head of the Church of England) who understood itself as having an evangelizing and even civilizing mission to the world (whether those being evangelized or civilized wished to be or not).
While class divisions within Britain have been, and were then, very clear, the nouveau bourgeoisie, represented by Ebeneezer Scrooge, that “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner”, understood themselves as having escaped the vicissitudes of poverty, perhaps only by the skin of their teeth (like Dickens, who spent most of his adult life in dire fear that he would end up like his father, imprisoned for debt). The last thing they wished was any association with the petit-bourgeoisie or proletariat who made up the bulk of the nation. Small due to poor nutrition, undereducated, underemployed, underpaid when employed, not welcome in churches (despite Bob Cratchit’s visits with Tiny Tim; the rest of the family, surely, wasn’t there precisely because they weren’t wanted, dirty, poor, and ragged as they were), their only hope the emerging system of social welfare that too often relied upon the local parish to which Parliament had first devolved responsibility without oversight. Scrooge understood his position very well; it is not just his personal history*, but the whole emerging socioeconomic structure of Britain that mitigated any fellow-feeling for those around him, including his only living relative, his nephew Fred.
Much attention is often paid to the ghost of Marley baying out his confession of a life wasted in greed in avarice, as well as the punishment to which he is sentenced – to know what might have been and know it is, now, always beyond his grasp. Yet, for my money, it is the Ghost of Christmas Present’s indictment of Scrooge, with the old man’s words no less, that is far more pointed, far more damning, and for our purposes today, far more important. When the Spirit says that “in the sight of heaven” Scrooge “might be more worthless” than those Scrooge himself has named as the surplus population, his words should ring a bit more loudly in our own ears. After all, at this particular moment in time, are we not more callous, less interested in seeing our fellow human beings as just that, lining up in various queues of “Us” and “Them”, taking sides. Most of all, we are at a moment when many Americans are just tired of all the demands from those below us on the socioeconomic ladder to be heard. We don’t want to hear them. We don’t care about them and their needs. Circumstances are precarious enough, after all, for those who have “made it”; why should we expend energy, and more importantly money, helping those who are where we were not that long ago?
And the indictment of the Second Spirit rings down the decades, demanding we hear, again, that our worth is not something we ourselves determine. Ours is a world filled with “surplus populations” ignored, beaten, shot, murdered in mass numbers, forced to live lives outside the sight of the rest of us so that, as Scrooge tells the gentlemen who come by his office asking for a donation to help the poor, he “doesn’t know that”; in other words, he has only the words of the gentlemen to go by when it comes to the lives and conditions of the poor. It is easy, even now, with 24-hour news channels and thousands of cable channels and the internet, not to see and not to hear the truth far too many live each day.
As Dickens’s little masterpiece is now as much a part of many households’s Christmas preparations as reading the Nativity story in Luke 2, perhaps we should remember this Advent the words of Scrooge’s nephew Fred, that we open our shut-up hearts and see those around us as fellow-creatures on our way to the grave. Preparing ourselves for the coming of the Christ child should include not just “charity”, although God knows there is never enough of that. Preparing ourselves for the birth of the Son of God includes recognizing all the ways we, whether we recognize it or not, whether we name it or not, whether we admit it nor not, are part of the very problem Dickens named so long ago – living a life “solitary as an oyster”, closing ourselves within our own lives and cares, never lifting our eyes to see the world around us as it really is. In so doing, we might not only approach the stable with a tad bit more humility. We might also remember that this tiny baby, perhaps finally asleep on a bed of hay, has come to earth, emptying himself not for “us” but for “all”. Our job, in no small part, is to step out of those lines into which society and culture push us – “Us” and “Them” – and wander among all, seeing them, loving them, helping them, giving of ourselves to them.
Perhaps then, we can hear Tiny Tim’s blessing: “God bless us, everyone.”
*And Dickens is a master of psychology in storytelling. He understood, in a visceral way, how a life history shaped the personality of an individual. That he also understood the social roots of personality is clear enough from the rest of his works. In A Christmas Carol, however, he weaves a psychological novella to be read with awe.